Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Srebrenica's Unanswered Question

Dutch foreign minister at time of massacre says two former-UN officials hold key to understanding why enclave fell.
By Chris Stephen

The Srebrenica massacre, the worst atrocity of the Bosnian war, has been the subject of numerous books, two full parliamentary inquiries, and now a series of high-profile war crimes trials. But the former Dutch foreign minister at the time of the massacre, Hans Van Mierlo, says that the biggest question - why the UN let the enclave fall, may never be known.

In an exclusive interview with IWPR, Van Mierlo, who continues to play an influential role in Dutch politics, said the answers to the question lie with two men, both of whom refused to appear at investigations earlier this year - former UN force commander General Bernard Janvier and UN special representative Yasushi Akashi.

"The Dutch parliament tried to clarify what happened, but some of the high officials, like Janvier and Akashi, refused to testify which made a definite conclusion impossible," he told IWPR.

The key event in the fall of Srebrenica was when Janvier and Akashi refused to use air power to support Dutch troops fighting off a Serbian attack. This was despite the UN promising in 1993 that it would defend the town, which was made one of six UN Safe Areas.

Without air support, the lightly-armed Dutch troops surrendered. Days later Serb forces began an orgy of executions - in which more than 7,000 unarmed Muslims were killed - dealing a huge blow to the UN's reputation.

But why did Janvier not send air support? Combat jets were available, in fact one, piloted by a female Dutch pilot, dropped a bomb to destroy one Serb armoured vehicle early in the offensive.

Massive air support was ready from NATO if the UN requested it. The Dutch troops in Srebrenica wanted it. But Akashi, or some combination of the two, refused to give the order. "You know, it was Janvier who refused to give air support," said Van Mierlo.

Following the disaster, Van Mierlo was invited to a French parliamentary inquiry, and said he was happy to agree. Janvier gave testimony in secret. But Van Mierlo was able to see part of his report.

There was nothing in the testimony about the big question - why no air support had been ordered.

But Van Mierlo saw that the general felt that French troops would not have surrendered, as the Dutch did.

"We saw in secret the testimony of Janvier, what he had to say, but that was behind closed doors. Janvier had said what he thought that if there had been French troops they would have fought and things like that. He was so rough about the Dutch troops," he said.

"I have asked myself whether the behaviour of other soldiers - French for instance - would have been different. And my answer was this - no, of course not."

Van Mierlo felt the criticism of the Dutch troops was unjust - they had no air support, and without this, their light weapons were no match for Serb armour. But he also felt something else - that had there been French troops, or troops of a major power, holding the Srebrenica enclave, the UN would have committed air support to protecting them.

So he hinted that he had seen the secret evidence, telling the French inquiry, "Of course I have asked myself often whether soldiers of a different country would have behaved differently. Of course not. But I am sure that if they would have belonged to a big country, they would have had air support much easier than the troops of a small country. If air strikes would have been there the Dutch would have fought also. And there was a big smile from the other side of the room."

It was one of the few smiles of anyone involved in the Srebrenica incident. Later reports have blamed all sides - the Bosnian Serbs, for carrying out the massacre; the UN for not protecting the enclave; the Dutch troops for not trying harder to protect the civilians; and the units of both sides, prior to the attack, for breaking the UN ceasefire with raids around the edges of the enclave.

Van Mierlo's role in Dutch politics is now more behind the scenes than it was in 1995, but he is still troubled by Srebrenica.

"I think that it was absolutely the biggest humiliation that it happened," said Van Mierlo. "Even if you're not personally guilty. But then it happened. I feel bad about it. Bad that it happened and I hadn't prevented it. Perhaps I wasn't warned enough. I put myself questions. Did I do what I could do? Could I have forseen it? It is very difficult to forsee genocide because you don't want to believe it."

He says he welcomes inquiries into the events surrounding the massacre, "I think it is an obligation for democratic leaders and military men in a democracy to take their responsibility in public and to answer."

Van Mierlo has always been a keen supporter of the war crimes process, pushing the Netherlands to contribute to the building of court facilities at the Hague tribunal. And, when the decision was made to open the International Criminal Court, ICC, he traveled to the UN to lobby hard for it also to be headquartered in Holland.

He remains a keen supporter of the tribunal, saying he thinks the court, and the ICC, will in the end be successful, "It proved [the tribunal] that it can be done. It needs a lot of time to be accepted and to ripen and to smooth out."

Chris Stephen is IWPR's project manager in The Hague. Karen Meirik is a Dutch journalist.